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Guest Post: A High Five for Hope by Phil Bildner

It’s rare when I run guest posts on the blog. But this post, by author Phil Bildner, is one I am happy to share. Take it away, Phil!

A High Five for Hope by Phil Bildner

Whenever anyone asks me if the novels I write for young readers have a common theme or thread, I always answer with one word: Hope.

That’s certainly the case with my middle grade novel published earlier this year, A High Five for Glenn Burke. It’s the story of a twelve-year-old boy named Silas. Silas plays centerfield for his middle school baseball team, loves singing karaoke with his best friend, Zoey, and can recite every line and re-enact every scene from his favorite movie, The Sandlot. When he does a presentation for school on Glenn Burke, the former Major League baseball player, it’s more than just a report on the inventor of the high five. For Silas, it’s his first baby step toward coming out as gay.

A High Five for Glenn Burke is the book I wish I had when I was twelve. Middle school me didn’t know there were others like me. Middle school me felt all alone in the world. Middle school me certainly didn’t know queer kids played sports.

A book like this would have given me hope.

It was so heartening to experience the response to the book when it came out in late February. It was resonating with parents, educators, and most importantly, young readers. They told me how much they appreciated the book’s heart, humor, and relevance. They shared that they’d never heard of Glenn Burke, the Black gay baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers who invented the high five. They didn’t know the origin story behind our global gesture of jubilation and solidarity. The book was featured in the New York Times Book Review, on the ESPN podcast, “The Sporting Life,” and Billy Bean, the Vice President & Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, penned an open letter to Glenn Burke on the 25th anniversary of his death, an open letter that specifically referenced A High Five for Glenn Burke. The book I always believed could change lives and maybe even save lives was actually doing what I’d hoped.

But around the same time my book arrived so did the virus.

Like so many other children’s book authors with new books this year, I was faced with an unimaginable disruption to my plans and dreams. All of my school visits, conferences, festivals, and in-store appearances were cancelled. Add to that the irony—the cruel irony—of publishing a book celebrating the high five during a global pandemic in which we’re being urged to physically distance ourselves from one another. I struggled with feelings of indescribable worry and grief—not just about the fate of my book but also about the health of loved ones and what our future might hold.

Then the police murdered George Floyd.

People took to the streets. Like never before in my lifetime. Like never before in a generation. People took to the streets because of the rage and frustration and despair caused by the other deadly virus we’re fighting, racism. And at long last, so many appeared to be finally acknowledging that Black Lives Matter was never about the flag but always about systemic racism, police brutality, and the depraved and violent inhumanity shown to Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbrey, Michael Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many other Black humans.

People took to the streets in June. June is Pride Month. This past June was going to be the first Pride Month for A High Five for Glenn Burke. There were going to be so many opportunities to promote my book and to connect with young people in ways I never had. But that didn’t happen because Pride Month this year was a time to be centering Black voices, and I wanted to be allying with that effort. 

For something about this moment in time felt different. Something about this moment in time still feels different. This time, it feels like things may actually change. This time, it feels like there’s reason for hope.

When Glenn Burke played for the Dodgers during the 1977 season, he was the heart and soul of the team. He was the constant source of encouragement and support, and he helped propel the club all the way to the World Series. He was a shining light, even though he lived in a personal darkness and couldn’t be openly gay and eventually passed away from another global pandemic, AIDS. 

I believe if Glenn Burke was alive today and had been allowed to live his authentic existence, he would have been a leader and light in these times, a glimmer of hope for humanity. Since respect for everyone’s humanity is the hopeful message of A High Five for Glenn Burke, then perhaps the book I’d always believed would change lives and save lives will do so in ways I never envisioned.

The final stop on my book tour back in March before the COVID-19 pause was a fifth-grade classroom in a Title I elementary school in Washington, D.C. That afternoon, we talked about the importance of reading. We talked about community. We talked about queer kids, queer classmates, and queer relatives. We talked about Silas, the main character in A High Five for Glenn Burke who was going through a scary and difficult time and why it was so important to look out for others during scary and difficult times. We talked about Glenn Burke and about what happens when we don’t look out for one another—the pain it causes, the erasure it can lead to. We agreed it was wrong.

Thanks to An Open Book Foundation, a local non-profit organization, every child in the class received a copy of the book. When the kids found out, some of them gave one another fist bumps, some of them gave one another high fives.

For weeks, I kept returning to that flashbulb memory, that spontaneous moment of joy, encouragement, and solidarity. Each time I did, I kept thinking that if those were the last high fives those kids experienced for a long while, and if those were the last high fives I experienced for a long while, it was okay. Because each time I did, I saw hope. I saw hope in those kids.

Lately, I’ve been revisting that day all over again, searching for the connective tissue that somehow brings together the conversations we had in that fifth-grade classroom about Glenn Burke and queer existence and the explosive amplification of the importance of Black lives. Each time I do, I always end up back at that common thread. I always end up with hope, hope for the genuine respect for everyone’s existence and humanity.

So today, I’m sending out a high five, a virtual high five, a high five for hope.

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About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.